The US Open began with wins for all the seeds in the lower half of the women’s draw, with the exception of Yulia Putintseva, the No 31 seed from Kazakstan, who fell to the ever tricky Kaia Kanepi from Estonia, 2-6 6-7(4) 6-2.
Safely through, however, were Aryna Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Barbora Krejcikova, Garbiñe Muguruza and Simona Halep, amongst others.
Of these, only Sabalenka, the 2nd-seed from Belarus, dropped a set to Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic, bouncing back to win 6-4 6-7(4) 6-0.
“In the third set you guys just helped me to fight til the end, for every point,” she told the crowd after the match.
Sabalenka stormed to a quick 4-1 lead in the first set, but could not dig out a hold when serving at 4-2, hitting back-to-back double-faults before regaining her composure to take the opening set.
She earned an early break the second, but let Stojanovic back in after firing 3 more double-faults, the 3rd on a break point.
The Serb saved a match point with a clean backhand winner and then calmly took the tiebreak, but when the 3rd set resumed, Sabalenka regained her focus, striking just 8 unforced errors while running off 6 straight games to seal the win after 2 hours 24 minutes.
“First of all, she’s a great player,” Sabalenka said. “Yeah we played a lot of matches on different levels and they were always not easy matches against her so I kind of expected a great battle today.”
Sabalenka next faces French Open semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek in the second round after the Slovenian defeated Bernarda Pera, 6-4 7-6(4).
Defending champion Osaka, seeded 3 here, had a more straightforward path into round 2 with an impressive over Czech Marie Bouzkova, 6-4 6-1, under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium on opening night.
The two-time US Open champion fired 34 winners to 24 unforced errors to break down Bouzkova’s defence, and saved all 8 break points she faced.
Bouzkova earned an early chance to break the Osaka serve in the first set, but the Japanese held, and while the Czech did well to protect her own serve until the final game of the set, she dropped it, and Osaka raced away with the second, pocketing the match in 93 minutes to remain undefeated in the first round of a hard-court Slam.
“I actually thought I was doing pretty well on the return games,” Osaka said. “There were a couple games that were pretty close, so I just kept telling myself to keep it really tight, hopefully she’ll get nervous or something.
“I feel like that did happen a little bit on the last set point that I was able to win.
“But, yeah, my serve’s definitely one of my biggest weapons. It’s able to come in when it’s really necessary. But hopefully it won’t be that needed in the future.”
Osaka, who did not play at Wimbledon after pulling out of the French Open following the first round for mental health reasons, next tackles Serbian qualifier Olga Danilovic in the second round on Wednesday.
No 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine also made it through as she took out Canadian qualifier Rebecca Marino, 6-2 6-3 in just over an hour.
Svitolina, a US Open semi-finalist in 2019 and a title-winner last week in Chicago, was too sturdy on the day and although the powerful Canadian hit 25 winners to Svitolina’s 14, the Ukrainian converted 4 of her 11 break points while only dropping her serve once.
Despite being this year’s No 8 seed, reigning Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova had never played a main-draw singles match at the US Open before Monday.
Nevertheless, the Czech had no problem claiming her first win in New York after dispatching Australian qualifier Astra Sharma, 6-0 6-4, in only an hour 14 minutes, winning the first 8 games and holding on from there to earn the win.
Earlier in the day, Halep and Muguruza, a pair of 2-time Grand Slam champions who have had their difficulties in New York, pulled out tough victories on Monday.
The tournament is welcoming back spectators on proof of vaccination after being played last year without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the grounds were packed throughout the day.
Halep, who suffered consecutive first-round exits in the 2017 and 2018 US Opens and did not compete in New York last year, held off Italy’s Camila Giorgi, 6-4 7-6 (3), in an hour 33 minutes on Grandstand.
“So for me it was normal to have the people in the stands, and the noise that is always in the US Open,” Halep said. “I started to like it.
“I start to embrace these things. I had fun on-court, and I liked some people that were screaming in Romanian also and in English.”
The Romanian 12th seed was in some danger against Giorgi, who recently won a hard-court title in Montreal for the biggest victory of her career, as she was broken while serving for the match at 5-4, but she recovered to win the final 4 points of the breaker.
Up next for the former Wimbledon and French Open champion is Kristina Kucova, a lucky loser from Slovakia, who defeated American Ann Li, 7-5 6-1.
Muguruza, the No 9 seed, advanced with a gritty 7-6(4) 7-6 (5) victory over Croatia’s Donna Vekic after 2 hours 20 minutes on Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the temperature was hovering around 25 degrees Celsius (77°F).
The Spaniard has also won the French Open and Wimbledon, but the US Open is the only major where she has not reached the quarter-finals, having been knocked out in the first round just 2 years ago, but she steadied herself in both tiebreaks against the Croat, who reached the last 8 in 2019.
“Nobody remembers, nobody cares what happened in the past,” Muguruza remarked with a smile.
Carla Suarez Navarro, Muguruza’s sometimes doubles partner, heads into retirement after losing to American Danielle Collins, 26th seed, 6-2 6-4, a year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
The Spaniard, who once was ranked as high as No 6, underwent 6 months of chemotherapy and returned at the French Open, where she lost in the first round, and lost again in the first round at Wimbledon before winning a match at the Olympics.
“I lost, but this year for me was a gift, you know,” she said, confirming this was her last singles match. “Last year on these dates, I don’t know if I can be here one more time or not, and I’m here.’’
Elsewhere, 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber pulled off a stunning comeback, overcoming Dayana Yastremska of Ukraine, 3-6 6-4 7-6(3).
The 16th seed led by a break twice in the first set, but Yastremska charged back each time, winning the final 4 games of the opener.
The German levelled the match by taking the only service break in the final game of the second, while a early flurry of breaks in the decider was settled with Yastremska serving for the match at 5-4, but she dropped her serve and it headed into the breaker in which Kerber took control, leaping out to a 5-1 lead before clinching the topsy-turvy affair.
“In the third set, when we played the tiebreak, everything can happen,” said Kerber, after the match. “I was just trying to staying focused, play every single ball as good as I can.
“I think that it was more for me that I won it mentally today. I’m happy about that, how I came back in the third set.”
Kerber will next face another Ukrainian, Anhelina Kalinina.
Elise Mertens, the 15th seed from Belgium, also mounted an incredible comeback to defeat Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson, saving 6 match points to win 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(5), while No 20 seed Ons Jabeur from Tunisia booked her spot in the second round with a solid performance against Chicago finalist Alizé Cornet from France, winning 7-5 7-5 in an hour 43 minutes.
Unseeded Sloane Stephens needed 2 hours 10 minutes to edge out Madison Keys, 6-3 1-6 7-6(7), in a rematch of her victory in the 2017 US Open final.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was far from filled for the start of their match, possibly because fans faced delays entering the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on the day they were allowed to return to the tournament.
After dominating the opening set with breaks in games 3 and 9, Stephens was pegged back as Keys overwhelmed her with 3 breaks in the second set to force a decider.
It went according to serve until game 11 when Stephens broke and then couldn’t serve it out as her compatriot drew level.
Keys then found herself 5-3 up in the tiebreak, but Stephens hit back and eventually wrapped it up on her 3rd match point, winning after 2 hours 10 minutes.
“Being an American playing at the US Open is incredible. I think this atmosphere, out of all the Slams, is pretty unmatched,” Stephens said. “I think this is, like, the peak of the peak.”
In other matches on Day 1, 3-time US Open runner-up Azarenka beat Tereza Martincova from Czech Republic, 6-4 6-0, after trailing trailing 4-1 in the opening set before seizing control.
Coco Gauff needed over two-and-a-half hours to hold off Magda Linette in a thriller on Louis Armstrong Stadium, coming back from a set and a break down to outlast the Pole, 5-7 6-3 6-4.
“I was definitely very nervous coming into today’s match just because it’s a first round in your home Slam,” Gauff told the media, after her win. “Honestly I’m glad that I was able to get through it.
“The crowd, playing in front of the New York fans, definitely is an experience that I’ll never forget.”
A difficult match against a seasoned compatriot awaits Gauff in former champion Stephens.